Section: Must read

As COVID-19 cases surge, Kenyon announces revised plan for the 2020-21 academic year

As COVID-19 cases surge, Kenyon announces revised plan for the 2020-21 academic year

Kenyon has announced that only first years, sophomores, and transfer students will be attending classes in person in the fall. | Sophie Krichevsky

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike both nationally and within the state, Kenyon announced on Tuesday new plans to limit the number of students on campus at a given time. Only first years, transfer students and sophomores will study on campus for the fall semester, which will begin on Aug. 31 — one week later than originally scheduled. Juniors and seniors will attend classes remotely in the fall and return to campus for in-person instruction in the spring. All international students will be permitted to remain on campus and receive in-person instruction for both semesters, regardless of class year. 

“We recognize that changing course creates additional disruption in an already volatile time,” President Sean Decatur wrote in the news bulletin sent out Tuesday. “But one of the guiding principles of our work has been following data and best public health practices, and as these evolve, we must be prudent and flexible in our plans.” 

The College’s most recent announcement is a substantial departure from its previous plans for the 2020-21 academic year, in which all students would have returned to Gambier for a shortened semester. The decision comes as new COVID-19 cases in Ohio have tripled in recent weeks, rising well above 1,000 new cases per day since the College’s initial announcement in mid-June. 

In an interview with the Collegian, Decatur attributed the College’s decision specifically to the growing number of cases in Knox County: According to data from a recent wastewater test in the Village of Gambier, cases in the Village have spiked since Fourth of July weekend and may be doubling weekly (between two and 20 people are estimated to be infected). While the cases may have originally spread from specific environments or workplace interactions, Decatur now accredits them to broader community spread in the Village.

Decatur indicated that the number of students attending Kenyon in the fall will now hover around 1,100 — a number which would afford the College the opportunity to house each student in a single and have enough space to individually quarantine and isolate each student in the event of an outbreak. Having a limited number of students on campus would also allow for the College to “retain limited dine-in service in the dining hall, and teach classes in spaces that are optimized for both learning and safety,” Decatur said. 

In alignment with the College’s original plans, the semester will end just before Thanksgiving break and students will have to vacate their residence halls by Nov. 25. The College has said that students who are unable to return home at this time due to exceptional circumstances will be able to apply to stay on campus between Nov. 25 and the start of the spring semester, which will begin Feb. 4. 

When asked why the administration had chosen for underclassmen, not upperclassman, to attend classes in Gambier this fall, Decatur explained, “I think there’s very quick recognition that the last semester leading into graduation is important for seniors, and that a first semester on arrival to campus and being introduced to Kenyon is important for first-years. So there are two slots that fill in pretty logically.” He added that keeping underclassmen and upperclassmen together would make scheduling changes easier, as they are more likely to overlap in their course options. 

Despite the College’s strict guidelines for the fall semester, Decatur outlined some exceptions to this rule: Upperclassmen who are in unsafe or vulnerable living situations or have a responsibility that would require them to be on campus — such as Community Advisors — can petition to study on campus beginning in the fall. Conversely, any student who does not feel comfortable learning in person will have the ability to take classes remotely.

In laying out the groundwork for this decision, Decatur emphasized the importance of providing international students with the opportunity to study in person, even with the recent reversal of directives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that would have sent international students home if their colleges switched to online classes. 

“I think that there’s a commitment among those institutions that signed on to the amicus [curiare] brief to continue to be vigilant about the policy implications [for international students],” Decatur said. 

 

Health and Safety Procedures 

The College also detailed its COVID-19 testing plans in Tuesday’s announcement. 

All students who arrive in the fall will be screened and administered an Anogen test, which identifies protein fragments of the virus. While the Anogen test delivers results exceptionally quickly — within 15 minutes — it also delivers a false positive rate of 5 to 10 percent. 

Those who test positive for COVID-19 from the Anogen test will then be isolated on campus and administered a more advanced polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that tests for the RNA of the virus.  

According to Decatur, who is a biophysical chemist by trade, the PCR test is the “gold standard” of COVID-19 testing, but takes between 48 and 72 hours to analyze and complete. 

Those who test positive for COVID-19 will be isolated by Knox Public Health (KPH) — which will manage the student’s housing arrangements and meal delivery— until they receive a negative result from the PCR test.

A random sampling of students will receive antigen testing throughout the school year. Similarly to the beginning of the year, anyone who tests positive in one of these tests will go into isolation, and anyone with exposure to the infected person will go into quarantine until they pass a PCR test. The College has not yet designated specific spaces for isolation, as the Office of Housing and Residential Life is still reviewing potential locations.

Once on campus, students will be permitted to leave campus grounds, although Decatur has said non-essential travel is strongly discouraged. Students who do return to campus for the fall do so agreeing not to travel outside of Knox County. Those who leave campus will not be tested immediately upon re-entry, but rather will be subjected to the random sampling of testing that occurs throughout the year.

In addition to testing protocol, the College will be providing each student with a smart thermometer (connected to an app to make it easier to track one’s temperature), and, according to the website, “will implement a system for daily symptom monitoring and tracking for all members of the community.” The school is also mandating mask-wearing on campus, six feet apart social distancing and 10-person limits on gatherings. 

While mask-wearing is being required by Kenyon, there are still questions as to how this policy will be enforced. Vice President of Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92 emphasized that she does not want this responsibility to solely fall on Campus Safety. 

“I think it’s really important that we all play a part in that effort,” Bonham explained. “Hopefully we can all hold one another accountable, and not expect that our safety officers — in addition to their other responsibilities, which are already substantial — take on that expectation as well.”

 As for mask-wearing in Gambier, the topic is still up for discussion in the Gambier Village Council. Mayor Leeman Kessler and council members have recently been discussing an ordinance to mandate mask-wearing in the Village. Gambier is a statutory municipality — which means its laws and ordinances default to the Ohio Revised Code,  leaving the town with limited authority on certain issues. However, Kessler has been in contact with Steve Patterson, the mayor of Athens, Ohio, home to Ohio University, to discuss how the pandemic affects college towns in particular.

Kessler predicts that, barring an emergency meeting, the Village Council will reconvene on Aug. 3 to decide whether there a mask-wearing ordinance will be put into place in Gambier, and what potential repercussions for violating this rule could look like.

 

Tuition and Financial Aid 

According to the College’s most recent announcement, “in recognition of the changes to our residential experience” as a result of the pandemic, each student will receive a credit of 10 percent of the $60,800 tuition, amounting to $6,080 (or $3,040 a semester).

 “It is not something that I think there is a formula or a precedent out there to follow precisely,” President Decatur said of the decision. “I think the desire was a recognition that there are components of the traditional Kenyon experience that won’t be the same next year, and so [the credit is] something that acknowledges that, in terms of what the Charge tuition rate is … but there’s no magic formula we’re following.”

The College will also charge one universal rate of housing; while all rooms will be housed as singles, students will be charged the rate of a residence hall double ($2,710 per semester). Students will not be charged room and board while they are not residing on campus and the student activities fee ($150) will be waived during that time as well. According to Decatur, the overall cost of attendance will also be less than in the 2019-20 academic year ($73,930).

The College is also setting aside additional reserves for financial aid — including, according to the website, “contingencies for students with more financial need than might have been expected before the pandemic.” According to Decatur, the budget adjustments Kenyon made entering the 2020 fiscal year come to a total of about 19 million — enough to account for situations, like the College’s current position, in which part of the academic year would be run remotely. 

“Basically what we’re projecting now that the changes of this coming year will fit within that projected set of budget cuts, and so we’re not at this time not looking for any other budget adjustments beyond that,” said Decatur.

Students can also apply for additional financial aid to request a one-time adjustment to 2020-21 financial aid awards using this supplemental financial aid application

 

Athletics

Although the Northern Coast Athletic Conference (NCAC) is planning on holding intraconference competition this fall, Kenyon has opted out of the fall season, joining Oberlin College in the decision to cancel intercollegiate athletics for the 2020 year. However, this does not mean that varsity athletes will be forbidden from practicing on campus; although students will not be allowed to gather in groups larger than 10 people, there may still be opportunities for socially distanced workouts and conditioning. It is not yet clear whether these regulations will apply to club sports. Intramural sports, on the other hand, will be suspended. 

Such workouts would likely take place either in the Kenyon Athletic Center (KAC) or on athletic fields, although indoor workouts will only be possible as long as the KAC is open. In this, Kenyon is also largely beholden to state directives; when the Ohio Department of Health closed all gyms in mid-March, the KAC was closed indefinitely. Now, as gyms have reopened, so has the KAC. If Governor DeWine decides to close all gyms once again, the KAC, too, would have to close. 

Even if the KAC remains open, daily operations will not look the same as they have in the past. Though students, professors and community members alike will still have access to its facilities, the KAC will limit the number of people using them at a given time. Though much of the KAC’s usual programming, such as KenyonFit classes, will not be available in person, instructors are working to develop programs that can be used virtually and individually. 

“We want to make sure that we do have opportunities for [students] to take care of themselves in terms of physical exercise,” Bonham said. “Our coaches and athletic staff will play a really important role in that effort.”

More information regarding athletics will become available during Athletic Director Jill McCartney’s livestream forum on July 16 at 8 p.m EDT. 

 

Academics 

The absence of juniors and seniors from Gambier has major implications for learning at Kenyon, both on and off campus. Taking into account that juniors and seniors will be off campus, and may require different course offerings than their younger peers, departments will reassess which courses they will teach this fall and which will be taught in the spring. Senior seminars and capstone exercises, for instance, are among the activities that will likely be rescheduled for the spring. Not only will the course list change, but not all courses will be taught in person this fall. Many upper-level classes, which are taken primarily by juniors and seniors, will be taught exclusively online. But remote learning will not be limited to those courses — professors who feel uncomfortable teaching in person will have the option to teach remotely. Though it is not yet clear how many professors will choose this option, course offerings will be updated by July 21. 

In accordance with the College’s June 15 announcement, students on campus will be expected to follow social distancing guidelines during their courses, including wearing masks and sitting six feet apart. To ensure ample space between students, classes will be held in larger spaces with optimal air circulation. Though initially Kenyon had been considering procuring large, outdoor tents in order to make these accommodations, Decatur said that this will likely be unnecessary. 

As always, all students will have the option to defer for either one semester or for the entire academic year.

“It’s certainly been one of the things that we considered that some students may choose to defer [or] take a gap year,” said Decatur. “We’re waiting to see what that actually looks like and what the interest level is like for students who prefer to do that versus doing a semester remotely.”

 Though it is likely that this may be a more popular option than usual, it is not yet clear how many students will choose to do so.

 

Housing and Dining 

While classes will start on Aug. 31, students returning to campus in the fall — first years, sophomores, international students and upperclassmen with exceptional circumstances — will take part in a phased move-in starting on Aug. 3 (More specific arrival dates can be found here). The College has advised students to pack lightly in the event that they test positive for COVID-19 and are asked to change locations or depart from campus. 

Because of social distancing requirements, Theme and Division housing will not be an option for the 2020-21 academic year. In order to provide each student with their own room, however, the College has obtained additional student housing in the McIlvaine apartments in Gambier and the Comfort Inn in Mount Vernon. The Comfort Inn, which accounts for 60 rooms — each with an individual bathroom — will house only Kenyon students and staff for the entirety of the academic year. Students living in the hotel will have the option of bringing their cars or travelling to campus via the Knox Area Transit (KAT) service. 

Due to the increased need for sanitation in public spaces, the College has altered its bathroom cleaning procedures. While, in the past, dormitory bathrooms were cleaned once a day, they will now be cleaned twice daily, including on weekends, one of which will be a “deep clean.” Students will also be provided with disinfecting wipes to clean frequently-touched surfaces, such as doorknobs and bathroom stalls. Moreover, students in apartments will be provided with supplies and expected to clean their bathrooms regularly. 

Students can expect to continue dining in Peirce Dining Hall, albeit with tighter restrictions. The servery stations, rather than being primarily self-service, will be mostly staffed for service. Most dishware and utensils will be disposable, reducing the need to staff the dishroom. Moreover, only Kenyon students will be allowed to eat at the dining hall and the servery will be “controlled for limited flow” during meal times. Tables will be spaced six feet apart and students must wear masks until they sit down to eat. Peirce will also have extended dining hours and offer grab-and-go meals. 

 

Student Life

As expected, student life on campus this fall will hardly resemble that of the past, as activities will need to be altered in order for students to participate safely. 

“We all are in this together, and we all have to be very cognizant of the social distancing guidelines that are going to be in place on campus,” Bonham said. “We’ve been working really closely with one of the working groups to help to define what it means to socialize on campus, and also the expectations that we will have for students and other community members, in terms of our responsibility for taking care of ourselves and taking care of one another.” 

Student organizations will be encouraged to meet virtually as much as possible. Bonham did recognize, however, that guidelines still need to be tailored for each group, as not all organizations can participate in their activities online. 

“With over 100 student organizations, I think it would be impossible to take a really hard line,” she explained. 

When groups do meet in person, attendance will be limited, and those who participate will need to wear masks and maintain proper social distancing practices.

Students may also need to shift the way they typically navigate shared spaces. Common areas, for instance, which are often enjoyable for students because of their ability to be rearranged, will be set up so that they can be used while maintaining social distancing. In these spaces, sanitation materials will be made available  and maximum occupancies will be lower than in the past.Students will also not be allowed to use communal kitchens for the foreseeable future. Laundry facilities will have social distancing guidelines posted, and sanitizing supplies will also be provided.

Students will be allowed to have guests in their room, but they will be limited to one guest at a time and should wear face coverings. Only other Kenyon students will be permitted to stay in student rooms overnight.

 

Moving Forward

Decatur acknowledged that, regardless of the College’s current plans, the administration may make changes to the school’s operations if the pandemic worsens in the coming weeks or months. First years and sophomores’ attendance in the spring, for instance, will depend on the severity of the pandemic at that time.

“I think that, given the state of things, we have to say that all of our plans are fluid and dependent on the current state of the pandemic,” said Decatur. “There’s no single threshold trigger I could point to to say that ‘if this number hits a level, we will pivot to a different model.’”

Decatur expressed confidence in the current plan, but also reiterated the importance of keeping the community safe and following the science closely to keep up with best health and safety practices.  

“I feel good about this plan and what this plan would mean for both the circumstances we’re looking at now and — within some limits — of how that might change over the course of the next few weeks,” he continued. “But if things were to be significantly worse, still making the decision that’s going to be right for the health of the community is the most important thing.”

Finally, while the College has put together a plan that they feel is best for students and for the community as a whole, they recognize that this does not make things any less heartbreaking for upperclassmen, particularly seniors. As Associate Professor of History Patrick G. Bottiger wrote to students in an all-student email, “Know that [professors] are thinking about you. We care about you. We miss you. And we are going to find our way through all of these challenges.” 

 

More information will be forthcoming in President Decatur’s live forum, which will be held virtually on July 15 at 7 p.m. EDT. Community members can submit forum questions in advance here. See other key dates about the College’s upcoming term here.

 

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